“And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)
The hardest people to forgive are those who have deeply hurt or offended us, but claim to have done nothing wrong.
Stephen died at the hands of one who was fully justified in his own mind that what he was doing was the right thing. “I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” (Acts 26:9) But what Saul of Tarsus thought was “service to God,” Stephen knew was sin in God’s sight.
How did Stephen respond to this grave injustice at the hands of one who was so wrong, but believed he was so right? “And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:60)
Stephen knew that the sin of Saul and his cohorts was grave; a sin worthy of severe punishment. Though these who were stoning him had no conviction upon their lives, they were nonetheless guilty before heaven’s Judge. When Stephen told God to not lay this sin to their charge, he was telling God that he did not want them to pay for this sin. Obviously they would pay if they didn’t repent; but, like Jesus before him, Stephen made intercession for the transgressors, even when they were falsely counting him as the transgressor.
We cannot release anyone from God’s judgment. He declares that vengeance is His and He will repay. When we forgive someone we release them from OUR judgment. We join with a God who delights in mercy and has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Like God, we would rather that our offender would one day come to their senses, see their sin, repent and find mercy. But until that time we are going to ask God not to lay their sin in His balance scale. We are asking Him to defer judgment and give them further space to repent. Yes, we know that there must be a day of reckoning to the unrepentant; but we stand in the gap for them now, asking God to “in wrath remember mercy.” (Hab. 3:2)
Stephen wore the heart of God in his dying moments. He did not live to see his prayers answered. But what a reunion there must have been in heaven when the martyr Stephen met the martyr Paul.
God delights to respond to the prayers of those who intercede for transgressors, especially when they pray for those who have wronged them and continue in unrepentance. Release those who have hurt and offended you, even those who refuse to comprehend what they have done and even justify it. You may not live to see their repentance, but you may one day have a blessed and tearful reconciliation before heaven’s throne of mercy.